The magic of enkais

One of my pet peeves is being used for English practice without being asked beforehand.

It’s one thing when I enter a shop and a staff member attempts to speak English to me–that’s someone who is just trying to do their job and make our transaction go as smoothly as possible. If you speak Japanese, all you need to do is tell them so and you can continue on as normal. And if you can’t speak the lingo or they’re asking you something complicated, it can be a godsend to have someone explain what’s going on in English.

It’s another thing when you’re in a hurry somewhere and you feel someone tap your shoulder… and upon turning around you’re confronted with someone who wants to go through the whole “Welcome to Japan”/”Where are you from”/”How long you stay in Japan”/etc. script with you to practice their language skills.

A goal of mine is to speak Japanese as much as possible in my private life, so when I joined my taiko group I did it with the intention of communicating in the local language. It feels more considerate to do so, anyhow- the less the teacher has to pander to my English-speaking self, the better, right?

Enter the well-intentioned folks who want to practice English.

I’ll call this guy J-san… Jay-son… Jason. Yeah let’s go with Jason. Jason’s an older guy in my group who, the first few times we met, tried to speak at me in English, and it felt very much like he was doing it for comedic effect. I remember one time he approached me, essentially bellowing, “HI, MISS STEFANIE” immediately after a class when we’d already done greetings. It felt very awkward and I responded in Japanese with a, “Hi, Jason-san” for lack of any idea of what to do.

Another time we were setting up the drums, and everyone (including me) was discussing what kinds of drums we should be using. In the midst of all this, Jason turned to me and again bellowed, “WHY YOU COME JAPAN?”

I smiled and said, “Let’s talk about that after the lesson!” Then following the lesson I left before he had the chance to approach me.

After that, he seemed to stop, and everything went well for the next six months or so.

Enter the enkai.

An enkai (宴会) is a party, generally held at a restaurant, or Japanese izakaya. It’s short for nomikai (飲み会), or drinking party, along with many other terms. They’re held for holidays, for birthdays, or for after you’ve accomplished something. In our case, after our most recent performance, we set up an enkai to celebrate at a local restaurant.

The purpose of an enkai is, for all intents and purposes, to clear the air. People get thoroughly drunk, eat lots of food, and do lots of stupid stuff with and in front of people they normally have to act professional around. This means that you have enkais with coworkers, classmates, teachers, the whole nine yards. Whereas in the US it’s not a good idea to get drunk in front of people whose respect you need, here it’s seen as an integral bonding thing. At an enkai, you are encouraged to get sloshed and complain about the things that really bother you at work/school/etc. Others in turn will share their own feelings with you, whether they’re good or bad. In the morning, after the hangover, everybody goes back to the way it was before.

What do I mean by that? It means if you confessed to your boss that you hate his guts, you still go to work and treat him with respect, and he does the same to you. If you complain about a particular process or system at work or school with your colleagues, you go back the next day and continue following said process or system as if it’s the best idea in the world.

So what’s the point? The point, as far as this oblivious foreigner believes, is reaching a level of understanding with each other so you know where you really stand. Yes, you and your boss will still have meetings together and listen to each other–you both just understand that you hate each other and you can’t wait to change jobs.

In my case, I entered this party with my taiko group, and was sat between a buddy and… Jason. Of course.

The first hour or so was fine; we made small talk, and then I chatted with my buddy while we all drank stuff. I stuck to light things as I had work in the morning, but lots of my taikogumi indulged in beer, shochu, nihonshu, all of that strong stuff, and faces started to turn red and voices started to get loud.

Finally, Jason spoke up. “So,” he said conversationally in Japanese, “I heard that M-san tried to speak to you in English the other day.”

I thought for a moment. “M-san from the mid-level taiko group? Yes, he did,” I said noncommittally.

“I heard that you spoke to him only in Japanese, too.”

“We were busy putting stuff away, and I was tired.”

“Well,” he said, nodding firmly, “it made me feel loads better.”

“…Huh?”

“Because I thought you didn’t like me because you only ever speak to me in Japanese and turned down my attempts at speaking English. I thought you had a problem with me, but now I get that you just have an issue with speaking English to people!”

I blinked. Then I said, “I never had a problem with you. I think you’re really dedicated to the group and you work hard. Sorry if you felt that way.”

“No, no, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have put you on the spot with English-speaking. After all, you’re studying Japanese, right? It makes sense you’re trying to stick to that. I was just confused because the previous foreigners I met only spoke English and if they needed Japanese, they’d get a spouse or friend to do that for them.”

“Oh, I see. I live by myself so I gotta do all that on my own.”

“It’s really impressive. Do you mind if I speak to you in English sometimes? I want to practice but I don’t really have a chance to.”

“It’s fine, thanks for asking. Just don’t be surprised if I speak back in Japanese.”

He waved a hand. “Fine by me; gomen ne, Stefanie. I’m sorry.” The last two words he spoke in English.

I grinned. “That’s okay,” I responded, also in English. Then I held up my glass. “Cheers?” I suggested.

He grinned back. “Cheers.”

I think we’re buddies now. We’ve had practice a couple of times since then, and while he sprinkles his conversation with me with random English, I don’t mind nearly as much now that I know why he’s doing it. It’s not for comedic effect like I thought, but so that he can feel more comfortable speaking with other English-speakers.

So now it’s more like:

Jason: Hi, Miss Stefanie! Yesterday, thank you very much!

Me: Hi, Jason-san! Kinou otsukaresamadeshita.

I wonder what other things will be revealed in future drinking parties.

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